The following is my personal analysis of the UCLA baseball program, five years into the tenure of UCLA head baseball coach John Savage. The analysis is based upon both my own observations, what I've been told by trusted sources and most heavily by the interview I did with Coach Savage. You can reread both part one and part two of that interview by clicking on the links provided. My analysis are borne solely out of that and while I did conduct the interview with Coach Savage, my analysis includes nothing that I learned that day that wasn't published. I will post my analysis in several parts, with each taking a look at a different aspect of the program in semi-short takes.
Over the past year or two, I've covered the UCLA baseball program in excruciating detail and while I've also been accused of supporting the program at all costs to the point that I will agree with any move the program makes, I've also been accused of being overly harsh of the program and holding it to ridiculous standards. The reactions I received via e-mail to my post asking where the program goes following the 2009 season were as varied as can be. Those reactions were valuable though, as they provided other perspectives that allowed me to approach my interview with Coach Savage in a different manner, addressing both the state of the team itself and the other variables (stadium, exposure, scheduling, etc.) in a more responsible manner. Due to those reactions and the detail with which I have followed the program, I believe that my interview was able to address some of the more important topics facing the program and while I could not address each and everything I'd like to, Coach Savage was gracious enough to provide thoughtful responses to a great deal of what is more pressing within the program.
The topic that people want clarification on most often is UCLA's schedule and for good reason. The Bruins have the Pac-10's second-highest winning percentage in conference play over the past four seasons, all third-place finishes. Despite strong Pac-10 play, the Bruins have never received a #1 seed or have been comfortably in the NCAA Tournament with a couple weeks to play under Coach Savage. That is because the Bruins have struggled against an incredibly difficult non-conference schedule. In each of the past four seasons, UCLA's schedule has been ranked either first or second by Boyd's World and their strength of schedule over the past five years (all five of Coach Savage's years at UCLA), the Bruins' schedule is tops in the country. Playing such a daunting schedule has no doubt contributed to the poor starts the Bruins have gotten off to and forced such strong Pac-10 play just to get into a Regional. At the same time, just as Coach Savage said, the touch non-conference slate is what has prepared those teams for the Pac-10.
I have always supported Coach Savage's scheduling and believe in the tough road he puts before his teams every season, but I also made it clear when the 2009 schedule was released that Coach Savage had gone too far. Let's take a look at the Bruins' 2009 non-conference schedule (weekends only):
2/20-2/22: vs. UC Davis (3 games)- UC Davis was an awful team that went 13-42 in 2009, a year after reaching a regional, but such struggles weren't unexpected considering the players they lost. Still, an easy home series for the Bruins
- 2/27-3/01: @ Houston College Classic (3 games)- The Bruins played three games in Houston, one versus Rice, one versus Baylor and one versus UC Irvine. Rice was a top 10 team all year who was a #1 seed in the Regionals, but was eliminated in the Super Regionals by LSU, who went on to win the national title. Baylor was a top 25 team for some of the season, but despite their high talent level, underachievedand won only one game before being eliminated in the Baton Rouge Regional. UC Irvine finished the regular season #1 in nearly every poll, but were upset in the Regional round that they hosted by a Virginia team that went on to the COllege World Series. The Houston College Classic, played at the Astros' Minute Maid Park, was extremely tough, but is the nation's top tournament and one that's tough to say no to.
- 3/6-3/8: @ Oklahoma (3 games)- Oklahoma came into the season with high expectations and thn exceeded them in the regular season by finishing second in the Big 12, a half-game back, and earning the #7 national seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Sooners were upset in the Regional round, but were a very, very good squad.
- 3/13-3/14: @ East Carolina (3 games)- East Carolina's Clark-LeClair Stadium is one of the nation's toughest stadiums for visiting teams and the Bruins had to play three games in two days there due to rain. The Pirates have been a very good program of late and were good enough this year to ear a #1 seed and host a Regional, which they won.
- 5/15-5/17: @/vs./vs. Cal St. Fullerton (3 games)- The Bruins have been awful versus the Titans in recent years (although the same can be said for a lot of teams), but they got to play the final two games of this three game series at home. The Titans got off to an incredible start this year and were one of the nation's top teams all year, eventually earning the #2 national seed and advancing out of the Regional and Super Regional rounds, both of which they hosted, to qualify for the College World Series.
Needless to say, this weekend schedule, combined with all the strong midweek games the Bruins player versus teams like UC Irvine, Pepperdine, Long Beach St., San Diego St., etc. made this year's schedule incredibly tough. While the teams were tougher than ever before, the four consecutive weekends on the road were even more ridiculous (@ Houston College Classic, @ Oklahoma, @ East Carolina, @ USC). In 2009, Coach Savage went overboard, however, he admitted as much. He acknowledged that the four consecutive road weekends too much and that it might have been better to push either Oklahoma or East Carolina back a year. Such an admission gives me comfort knowing that the Bruins are unlikely to ever face such a tough schedule, but at the same time, it was good to hear Coach Savage defend his scheduling philosophy on the whole because it is one I agree with.
In a perfect world, I'd like to see the Bruins' five non-conference series play out like this: 1) home versus weaker squad like UC Davis this year or St. Mary's the year before 2) home versus very good out of region team like the program has done versus Ole Miss or Miami in years past 3) away versus very good out of region team, similar to Miami or Ole Miss 4) weekend tournament like the Houston College Classic or another similar one 5) weekend versus good local team like Cal St. Fullerton, UC Irvine, Cal Poly, etc. that is either a home and home or is split with two games at one team's home field and one at another.
Now, of course putting together a schedule like this isn't as easy as it is to just write it. Contracts, travel, home and home agreements and other things are to be taken into account, as are invitations to tournament's like the Houston College Classic. That's the type of schedule I'd like the program to be aiming for though and to arrange it so the team is never on the road for more than two consecutive weekends.
Having seen the tentative 2010 schedule, I can assure you that while challenging, it is far more home heavy that last year and will give the Bruins an opportunity to get off to a fast start. So only one year after the unbelievably demanding 2009 schedule, Coach Savage has made an adjustment. The Bruins will once again play a tough slate of teams, but will have the benefit of home field and hopefully a good crowd as some intriguing names visit Los Angeles.
Check back for my next part, which will tackle the facility issue.